Sandia’s new medical director brings experience, reputation to the Labs
When Arthur Vall-Spinosa got out of medical school in the 1960s all doctors were being drafted. He had a choice between the Army and the Indian Health Service, and the decision was easy. “I had wanted to work with Native Americans,” he says. “So that’s what I picked.” (To read Dr. Vall-Spinosa’s personal reflections about his years on the Navajo Reservation, go here.)
Art was assigned to a hospital in Tuba City, Arizona, on the Navajo Reservation. His work there shaped a career that saw him collaborate with many of the country’s leading pulmonologists at a time when the specialty, which deals with diseases of the respiratory tract, was making breakthrough strides. He helped advance the treatment of tuberculosis and other respiratory illnesses while being trained at some of the world’s leading institutions.
“I couldn’t have asked for a better career,” Art says. “I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve done. I love medicine and I love a new challenge.”
He has one now as director of Employee Health Services Center 3300 at Sandia. He’s the first physician to oversee the Labs’ health-care operations in almost a decade. “Our task is to keep the workforce healthy and on the job,” he says. “That’s a tall order, but I know we can do it.”
The son of a minister
Art almost didn’t go into medicine. While drawn to the profession, he knew it required long and odd hours. And he knew what that meant as the son of an Episcopal minister who moved around the Pacific Northwest. “My dad was a wonderful man but he was gone a lot, especially on the weekends when his kids were home,” Art says. “He was one of those ministers who built up a church and moved on to another. I respected his work while resisting that style of living.”
But Art loved biology and wanted to help people, a trait from his father. He decided in his junior year of college to become a physician. He earned an undergraduate degree ffrom Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, then went to the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle. He did his residency at St. Luke’s Hospital in New York City.
Art was 28 years old when he chose to work at the Indian Health Service (IHS) hospital in Tuba City over an Army post in Vietnam, Germany, or Turkey. “Tuba City was a fantastic station,” he says. “It’s a wonderful location with wonderful people.”
The hospital, which served members of the Navajo and Hopi tribes, saw a lot of patients with tuberculosis, as well as lung damage from recurrent pneumonias and other respiratory ailments. Those experiences influenced his decision to be a pulmonologist.
The IHS sent him to train at Bellevue Hospital in New York City, National Jewish Health in Denver and Royal Brompton Hospital in London, the top pulmonary programs at the time. He returned three years later a board-certified pulmonary specialist and was assigned to the IHS hospital in Albuquerque, which was a sanatorium for mostly Navajo tuberculosis (TB) patients.
Art put together a program, with help from the US Centers for Disease Control, to move everyone to outpatient treatment on the reservation, the modern approach to treating TB. “I got them all back home and flew out to the reservation two or three days a week in a small plane to hold clinics,” he says. “Most TB patients don’t need to be hospitalized or even isolated. We modernized.”
The sanatorium closed in 1972 and Art left the IHS after seven years to teach at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine. He and two other pulmonologists set up the first pulmonary specialty program at UNM. “I had a large grant from the National Heart and Lung Institute to teach lung disease to medical students, but my real passion was taking care of patients,” Art says. “You couldn’t do that in an academic setting back then. It was publish or perish. I wanted to treat patients rather than do research papers.”
National learning curve of lung specialists
Art founded a pulmonary private practice in Albuquerque in 1976 that grew to nine physicians by the time he left it 20 years later. He was part of the formative years of pulmonology when flexible instruments such as bronchoscopes; breathing machines, or ventilators; critical care units; sophisticated technology to monitor how patients responded to treatment; and sleep labs were being developed.
“It was great to be part of a national learning curve of lung specialists. It was enjoyable, hard work,” he says. “But eventually I wanted to try something new.” He became chief of medicine in the Presbyterian Hospital system and medical director of its nursing homes for five years.
Then Art fulfilled a lifelong dream. He bought a sailboat in Finland and over the next eight years worked in the winter and, from June to October, visited Scandinavia; traveled the canals of Europe; sailed around the British Isles; traveled down the Atlantic coasts of France, Spain, and Portugal, through the Strait of Gibraltar into the Mediterranean Sea; toured the coasts of Spain, France, Italy, and Greece into the Adriatic and Aegean seas and the coast of Turkey; and eventually sailed as far south as the island of Malta. “It was a wonderful period of my life,” he says.
Art sold the boat in 2009 and worked as medical director of the Presbyterian Kaseman Hospital Skilled Nursing Facility until 2013, when he retired and turned to writing about health care. “But I’ve always been excited about medicine, and I started looking for something new,” he says.
Art started at Sandia in mid-January. He says he couldn’t do the job without managers Anna DeCoste, who runs the medical clinic, and Renee Holland, who handles health maintenance and physical therapy. “They are incredible,” Art says.
A long-time runner, Art likes to exercise and read historical novels and medical books. He’s an avid outdoorsman who spent summers as a youth working in a camp at the foot of Mount St. Helens — long before its catastrophic eruption in 1980. He enjoys four-wheel treks, hiking, fishing, and skiing, activities he shared with his two daughters, one a family practice doctor and the other a teacher.
Now that the Sandia workforce can call Dr. Vall, as he’s known, its doctor, what is his best advice to staying healthy? “Keep active, both physically and mentally,” he says. “Don’t smoke and don’t be a couch potato.”